What is Worship and Servitude?

 ‘Abûdîyyat and ‘Ibâdat

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اعْبُدُوا رَبَّكُمُ  

O people! Worship your Lord (2:21).

This is the first command in the Holy Qur’ân and it addresses all of humanity. It is a universal command by the All-Sustaining Lord. This is a command of submission to Rabb al-‘Âlamîn رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ, the One Who created many worlds and the means of their sustenance. He then perfected the human being in his evolutionary stages and then “breathed into him of His spirit,” ثُمَّ سَوَّاهُ وَنَفَخَ فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِه (32:9) in order to make him capable of receiving and understanding His Words. Then He said:

وَقَضَىٰ رَبُّكَ أَلَّا تَعْبُدُوا إِلَّا إِيَّاهُ

“Your Lord has enjoined you to worship none but Him” (17:23; cf. 51:56).

Worship is His Decree, which cannot be denied and must be followed. Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî said: “A person imagines that he can rid himself of his bad and base characteristics by means of his own actions and endeavours. When he strives and expends his energy, he is disappointed. Allâh says that with your weak legs, you will never be able to reach the goal. In a hundred thousand years, you will not be able to finish even one stage of the way. Only when you fall down and bow before your Lord in worship, and while walking, be unable to get up, then you will be uplifted through His Grace and favour. Now if you ask His help, He will bestow upon you His Grace. When you receive His Grace and strength from Him, to get up and reach the goal, then glorify your Lord with His Praise and extol His Name and ask again and again His protection (maghfirah مغفرة ) and His favour (- ni‘mah), seek forgiveness for your wrong thoughts, and realize that you were imagining that you would reach your goal (fallâhفلٌاح ) with your own efforts. You did not realize before that all things come from the Grace of your Lord. Now fall down in His worship and seek His forgiveness, and you will find that He is Oft-Returning and inclined to forgiveness (tawwâb al-Rahîm)” (Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî in Fîhi ma Fîhi).

The instinct and desire of adoration and worship of a deity has been made part of human nature (32:9).When he worships a deity; actually it is He, Allâh, Who is being worshipped. He is being worshipped in every place of worship, no matter to what religious grouping one belongs:  “Cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques {are places] wherein the name of Allâh is mentioned very frequently” (22:40). Every worshipper imagines Him according to his opinion and beliefs, and worships Him in his places of worship. He says, فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ  “Whichever way you may turn (you will find) Allâh’s attention” (2:115). Allâh is in every direction, and each direction represents a particular doctrine and belief regarding Him.  

The commanding Word I‘budû اعْبُدُوا, “Worship!” is derived from ‘abada, which means “to serve,” “to adore,” “to obey,” “to venerate,” “to submit,” “to devote,” or “to accept the impression of a thing” (Lisân al-‘Arab by Abû al-Fadzal Muhammad ibn Mukarram Ibn Manzûr; Tâj al-‘Arûs by al-Murtadzâ al-Husainî al-Zabîdî; and Al-Mufradât fî Gharâib al-Qur’ân by Abû al-Qâsim Husain al-Râghib). According to Ibn ‘Abbâs , the meaning of I‘budû, اعْبُدُوا, is in the sense of “know Me!” It can also mean, “be humble towards Me!” Thus, the Words يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اعْبُدُوا رَبَّكُمُ  can be rendered as “O humankind! Know Me, and when you know Me, then be humble towards Me.” No one can be humble towards another unless he knows his status. Therefore, it is necessary to know Him and know the fact that He is the possessor of all Might before Whom all the mighty of the world are to be lowly. Ibn ‘Abbâs , in his explanation of the word ‘abd عبد, emphasized the meaning of knowledge and knowing. The following Qur’ânic verses support the view of Ibn ‘Abbâs :  

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ لَآيَاتٍ لِّأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ الَّذِينَ يَذْكُرُونَ اللَّهَ قِيَامًا وَقُعُودًا وَعَلَىٰ جُنُوبِهِمْ وَيَتَفَكَّرُونَ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقْتَ هَـٰذَا بَاطِلًا سُبْحَانَكَ فَقِنَا عَذَابَ النَّارِ

“Surely, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and (in) the alternation of the night and the day there are many signs for people of pure and clear understanding. These are the persons who remember Allâh standing, and sitting and (lying) on their sides and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth (and say,) Our Lord! You have not created (all) this in vain. Glory be to you, save us from the punishment of the Fire.” (3:190–191)

When a believer uses his power of reflection (quwwat al-Fikr) and professes that Allâh is incomparable, One (Wâhid) and Alone (Ahad) (see p. 54) and Self-Sufficient and nothing is like His likeness (42:11), and that He stands high above any similarity with His creatures, he is consumed by bewilderment (hayrat  حيرة) and awe. This state inspires in him a real desire for servitude (‘abûdîyyat  عبوديت).  The servant (‘abd) then feels an urge in his heart to submit to Him in worship. When he Prays (Salât صلاة), He glorifies Him in each of his bowings (rakû‘) and in each of his prostration (sajadah  سجدة87:14-15). In his state of prostration and glorification he comes close to his Him.  With this closeness, his heart melts and yearns with fervent devotion for his Creator and Sustainer. With his glorification (tasbîh) when he is bowing down and in his prostration he responds to His original call: أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ “am I not your Lord who sustains you?” by saying, قَالُوا بَلَىٰ   “Yes! You are” (7:172). This confession inspires love for the Supreme Being Who sustains him, and creates hopes and fear in his soul. “We are like lutes once held by God. Being away from His warm body fully explains this constant yearning.” (Hȃfiz)

The human souls real and ultimate comfort (hat  راحت) lies in realizing that Allâh alone is his Sustainer and Nourisher (Rabb al-‘Âlamîn). In expressing your love to Him in worship and prayer, in becoming lowly and humble towards Him, and in obeying Him you are adoring your beloved. At the time of the creation, Allâh infused in you His h, His spirit (38:72). He also called you Nafs – the soul (89:2730), because you were able to attain a union with Him through Prayer, worship and love. The state of the souls union with Allâh is like that of a tree, which has its roots in the soil. Just as the tree sucks up water from the soil, so the yearning soul (nafs) sucks water from the spring of Allâh’s Love. The soul continues to grow in holy progression through this union. Allâh refers to this ultimate state of His servant as “nafs mutma’innah” (نفس المطمعنٌة – the soul at peace), with whom the Lord is well pleased, and the soul is well pleased with his Lord (89:2730). This ultimate state of comfort and peace is the greatest blessing of prayer and worship that can be attained.  

The one who goes to worship in a church, temple, cloister, synagogue, or even in a mosque worships a Deity he has in his mind, which he fits into his belief, his capacity, his aptitude and his upbringing (2:148). Many people worship their illusions, and by limiting the vastness of the Divine Attributes, they try to grasp Him. They create their own deities and small gods to fit into their limited minds, though they in reality intend to worship the One and only God (2:148). Such an object of worship, which those people assume is not proper, is actually poor in form; it is mostly an image in the form of a created thing—a star, the sun, an animal, a statue, or even a human being (see 35:1315). In reality, they profess a belief in Gods similarity with His creatures.

وَيَعْبُدُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ مَا لَا يَضُرُّهُمْ وَلَا يَنفَعُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ هَـٰؤُلَاءِ شُفَعَاؤُنَا عِندَ اللَّهِ ۚ قُلْ أَتُنَبِّئُونَ اللَّهَ بِمَا لَا يَعْلَمُ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَلَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۚ سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَىٰ عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ

“And (some) people worship, apart from Allâh, things that can neither harm them (of their own accord) nor can help them. They say, These are our intercessors with Allâh. Say, Do you (presume to) inform Allâh of the things of whose existence in the heavens or in the earth He does not know? Glory be to Him! High be He, exalted above (all the things) they associate (with Him)” (10:18).

Some say that He is to be worshipped because He is All-Mighty, or because He is the Lord. Some worship Him for some reward or demand; such is the worship of traders. Some people worship Allâh because they fear His punishment; such is the worship of slaves. There are some who worship Him out of their gratitude to Him; such is the worship of the noble. Actually, their worship is sometimes out of gratitude and sometimes out of love. They feel inclined and attracted towards the Beauty that they perceive in their hearts. They worship Him and love Him because they perceive Him as a “beautiful Beloved.” They take pleasure in worshipping Him, knowing that only through worship will they come into the Presence of that Beauty that they so intensely love. Many remain heedless. They go after the material things of this world, remain inclined to their animal instincts, and follow their low desires. They become the slaves of their impulses. We read:

وَاتْلُ عَلَيْهِمْ نَبَأَ الَّذِي آتَيْنَاهُ آيَاتِنَا فَانسَلَخَ مِنْهَا فَأَتْبَعَهُ الشَّيْطَانُ فَكَانَ مِنَ الْغَاوِينَ وَلَوْ شِئْنَا لَرَفَعْنَاهُ بِهَا وَلَـٰكِنَّهُ أَخْلَدَ إِلَى الْأَرْضِ وَاتَّبَعَ هَوَاهُ ۚ فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ الْكَلْبِ إِن تَحْمِلْ عَلَيْهِ يَلْهَثْ أَوْ تَتْرُكْهُ يَلْهَث ۚ ذَّ‌ٰلِكَ مَثَلُ الْقَوْمِ الَّذِينَ كَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِنَا ۚ فَاقْصُصِ الْقَصَصَ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ سَاءَ مَثَلًا الْقَوْمُ الَّذِينَ كَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِنَا وَأَنفُسَهُمْ كَانُوا يَظْلِمُونَ

 “And relate to them the news of him to whom We gave Our commandments but he withdrew himself therefrom, the satan followed him [in his pursuit of worldly desires and his impulses] with the result that he became one of those led astray (and became a pervert). Had We so willed We would have exalted him (in ranks) thereby [by means of these Our commandments], but he remained inclined to (the material things of) this world and followed his low desires. His case therefore is like that of a dog, if you bear down upon it, it lolls its tongue out or if you leave it alone, it still lolls out its tongue. Such is the case with the people who cry lies to Our commandments; [they do not give up their evil ways]. So narrate to them the account (of the people of old) that they may reflect. Sad is the case of the people who cry lies to Our commandments and it is their own selves that they have wronged.” (7:175–177)

Atheists think they have no need to worship, since they think they do not believe in any deity. They are mistaken. About them Allâh says, “Have you considered (over the plight of) one who has taken his own low desires for his deity?” (25:43). The deity that they worship is their pride, their wealth, their flag, their hero, their king, their president, their pet, their male or female partner, or any of the other created things. Again we read:

أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَـٰهَهُ هَوَاهُ وَأَضَلَّهُ اللَّهُ عَلَىٰ عِلْمٍ وَخَتَمَ عَلَىٰ سَمْعِهِ وَقَلْبِهِ وَجَعَلَ عَلَىٰ بَصَرِهِ غِشَاوَةً فَمَن يَهْدِيهِ مِن بَعْدِ اللَّهِ ۚ أَفَلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ وَقَالُوا مَا هِيَ إِلَّا حَيَاتُنَا الدُّنْيَا نَمُوتُ وَنَحْيَا وَمَا يُهْلِكُنَا إِلَّا الدَّهْرُ ۚ وَمَا لَهُم بِذَ‌ٰلِكَ مِنْ عِلْمٍ ۖ إِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَظُنُّونَ

“Have you considered the case of him who has taken his own low desires for his god and whom Allâh has forsaken and adjudged as lost on the basis of (His infinite) knowledge, and whose ears and heart He has sealed and whose eyes He has covered with a veil? Who then will guide him after Allâh (has condemned him for his being given to evil ways)? Will you then pay no heed?

“They say, We have only this present life (to live). We (people of one generation) die and we (people of a new generation from among us) come to life again (here in this very world). It is (the passage of) time alone that deals us death. But they have no real knowledge whatsoever about the matter [the Hereafter]. They merely make conjectures.” (45:23–24)

Worship, according to the teachings of the Holy Qur’ân, consists of reflecting about the Divine Attributes and living accordingly.

صِبْغَةَ اللَّهِ ۖ وَمَنْ أَحْسَنُ مِنَ اللَّهِ صِبْغَةً

(Assume) the hues (and the Attributes) of Allâh! And who is fairer than Allâh’s hues (and Attributes)?” (2:138) 

Thus, worshipping our Sustainer means to fulfil the requirement of His Attributes. The Holy Qur’ân has placed some of the excellent Attributes of Allâh before you to help you build up your moral fabric. If you fulfil this Decree, as He desires, His special favour (Rahîmîyyat رحيميت) guides you. When you worship Him, you do so for your own good (17:7). You yourself are a recipient of the reward of worship.  He commands you to:

قُلْ إِنَّ صَلَاتِي وَنُسُكِي وَمَحْيَايَ وَمَمَاتِي لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ

“Say, ‘Surely, my Prayer and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are (all) for the sake of Allâh, the Lord of the worlds’.” (6:162)

In other words, Allâh’s Attributes, when rendered into action in your daily life, constitute your worship. All your actions, your efforts, your sleeps and awakenings, as well as your relations with nature and with your family—are all acts of worship provided that you perform them for the goodwill of Allâh and to seek His pleasure.

Allâh says, “And We have prescribed certain rites of sacrifice for every people” (22:34). The rites of sacrifice (worship) for the Muslims are the five known pillars of Islam. The seven verses of al-Fâtihah (1:17) recited several times every day in five ritual Prayers (al-Salât) reminds a Muslim of those divine molds in which he has to cast his daily life. The first three verses of al-Fâtihah are the glorification of the Lord. They occupy the first place of worship.

Your acts of worship demand that you behave like rabb, rahmân, rahîm, and mâlik in your relations with Gods creation. You must look to the needs and requirements of Allâh’s creation, whether animate or inanimate; this is your rabûbîyyat. You must stretch your helping hands to the needy, even if they have not requested or deserved your help; this is your Rahmânîyyat. And if someone does you a favour, you should reward him more, many times more; this is your Rahîmîyyat. You must overlook the faults of others and whatever injustices you have suffered from them and practice forgiveness in your daily dealings; this is your Mâlikîyyat.  

After mentioning the four Divine Graces, you say, إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ, Iyyâka na‘budu, “(Lord!) You alone do we worship” (1:5). You mean thereby that you submit to His laws, His ways, His restrictions, and His Attributes. Your eating, sleeping, walking, sitting, standing, speaking, seeing, and hearing—in short, all your actions—become a kind of worship (6:162). By doing these actions, you are in fact “glorifying” the future human being who must be evolved out of your inner self. In reciting the Divine Attributes of perfection, you keep before you a sacred cast, in which you need to mould your character.  To “please Allâh” is in fact to work out your own spiritual evolution and to bring to realization whatever capacities your Creator has placed in you. In this effort lies your whole success; this effort is your worship of the Lord. In short, the Qur’ânic model of worship is in your reflecting on the Divine Attributes and putting them into practice according to your capacities. You know nothing of Allâh except through the ways He works in nature. Hence, your worship of Him should find its real manifestation in following His ways in your life. Your Prayer or other forms of adoration should act as a reminder of that Great Truth concerning Who is Allâh.

The desire for worship does not arise from any supposed need on the part of the Creator, Who is Self-Sufficient; rather, it is designed as an instrument for the inner moral development of you, the worshipper. The object of worship should not be to glorify Allâh’s Names and Attributes by repeating them mindlessly on a rosary. Worship also misses its object when it is confined to mere bowing down in prostration in a mosque or to simply counting and repeating some Names of God. Allâh is far above such needs. If the worship of a deity produces no moral effect in your life, it need not be pursued.  

The recital of certain sacred words and names is not an act of worship. It is useless to sing hymns at the top of your voice if you do not lead a godly life. If your worship lies only in bringing offerings and sacrifices to an  altar and to listen to the recital of hymns in His praise, then, it is either credible to Allâh nor profitable to you: “It is neither their flesh nor their blood (of these sacrifices) which matters to Allâh but it is guarding against evil [taqwâ] and devotion to duty on your part that matters to Him” (22:37). Allâh stands above offerings and rites that lack devotion and heartfelt love for the Creator and the creation. Allâh neither needs your worship, nor does He require any praise or thanksgiving from you for His acts of Mercy (31:12).

مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ

 “He who follows the right way follows it to his own good and he who goes astray, surely, he goes astray to his own loss. And no soul that bears the burden shall bear the burden of another (soul)” (17:15)

Your mindless extolling or praising Allâh does not contribute to His glory, nor does any blasphemy or disobedience take away any of His grandeur and dignity. Allâh said, “You may imagine you are benefitting Me through your worship, but acts of yours cannot add the least particle of goodness to My overflowing Goodness” (Hadîth-i-Qudsî, narrated by Abû Dharr). The purpose of the creation of all rational beings is their cognition of the existence of their Creator and their conscious willingness to conform their own existence to whatever they may perceive of His Will and plan. It is the twofold concept of cognition and willingness that gives meaning to what the Holy Qur’ân describes as ‘ibâdat or worship. Your worship of Him should consist of such acts as may help you use your own power and ability given by Him to the moulding of good moral character and benefitting His creation.  If your worship inspires you to follow His ways and commands of love for His creation, you contribute to make possible the best of civilization on righteous lines.  

Human beings did not give morals to this Deity, but He has planted His own morals in human beings. The whole of the Qur’ân is simply a commentary on the Attributes of Allâh taught to you (2:31). All the laws and regulations given in the Holy Book, when pursued, bring your life in accordance with the requirements of these Attributes. To be virtuous is to lead such a life. To walk humbly on earth (31:19) means to imbue yourself with His Divine Attributes. In adoring these Divine Attributes, you are reminded of the ways to acquire noble qualities yourself. To glorify Allâh is to edify yourself. When the Holy Qur’ân relates events of some great men, it is only to illustrate how such men lived up to these Attributes. Ibn al-‘Arabî said: “At the true station of servitude (‘abûdîyyatعبوديت ), Allâh is described by the attributes of the servant”. This does not mean that Allâh lowers Himself to the state of the servant (‘âbidعابد ), for there is nothing lower than the servant of Allâh (‘âbid) before Allâh, or than the state of servitude (‘abûdîyyat). This subject matter is explained by Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî in his Mathnawî (III 36693673), where he said: “When a candle is burning in bright sunlight, its flame is overlapped by the brightness of the sun and is hardly visible. The flame does not cease to exist, nor is its light consumed by the sunlight. Similarly, when a person comes near to his Lord, his light is overwhelmed by the Light of the Lord. The persons light continues to exist, but its attributes are wholly absorbed into Gods Attributes.”

Ibn al-‘Arabî said: “When a worshipper enters into the state of servitude with Allâh’s shared Attributes, He appears in Theophany (Jalâl) to him with the same-shared Attributes. In this state of servitude, the servant comes to know the mystery of His relationship to his Lord”. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) assures us of this when he says that through implicit worship (‘Ibâdat) our God becomes our limbs with which we walk and ears with which we hear and our tongues with which we speak and our eyes with which we see (Hadîth–i-Qudsî). This is an astonishing relationship with Allâh, and you will find very few who are able to taste it.